A bad deal? Diplomacy saves Israel from taking military action against Iran

The Vienna deal prevents the introduction of a new nuclear power in the Middle East, halts the nuclear arms race and saves Israel from using military force on Iran. So why is Prime Minister Netanyahu still so opposed to it?

By Shemuel Meir

Prime Minister Netanyahu speaks at Yad Vashem during the Holocaust Memorial Day Ceremony, April 15, 2016. (photo: Haim Zach/GPO)
Prime Minister Netanyahu speaks at Yad Vashem during the Holocaust Memorial Day Ceremony, April 15, 2016. (photo: Haim Zach/GPO)

Let’s set aside the mantras about the Iranian nuclear deal, that it is a “bad deal — an historic mistake.” The agreement signed on July 14 blocks Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon; it not just temporarily freezes its progress. The agreement includes clauses that refer to 10, 15 and 25 years — but blocking Iran’s path to the bomb is permanent. The concessions that Tehran made were bigger than anything any of the commentators in Israel predicted.

Before getting to the positive consequences on Israel’s security, it should be emphasized that negotiations between Iran and the world powers was about the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons — not other topics that certain actors tried to make the deal about. Our discussion here is about the results of the deal in relation to the goals of the negotiations, e.g. non-proliferation.

The Vienna agreement — known in diplomatic jargon as a JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and not a treaty that requires U.S. Senate ratification — is a multi-faceted agreement regulating Iran’s civilian nuclear program, which prevents the emergence of a new nuclear state. The detailed text and monitoring mechanisms are unprecedented in nuclear history. That is what strategists — as opposed to politicians and media commentators — are referring to when they describe it as an historic agreement. The agreement disperses the cloud of ambiguity that has loomed over the Iranian nuclear program for the past decade. There is no military fissile material — there can be no bomb. At the end of the process laid out in the agreement, Iran will be again a Non-Nuclear Weapon State (NNWS) in the NPT as all the others in this category.

I recommend reading the 159 pages of the report. Very few people in Israel have done so. For the sake of a fact-based discussion instead of the mantras and metaphors that have dominated the discourse in Israel thus far.

Dismantling the heavy water reactor in Arak and the establishment of a smaller reactor in its place. The destruction of the reactor core in Arak (one of two critical targets in the “military option”) and the permanent prohibition of separating plutonium from nuclear fuel waste entirely blocks a path to plutonium weapon. The significance of that is that it blocks the development of a compact nuclear warhead that can be fitted on a missile.

Secretary Kerry Speaks With Hossein Fereydoun and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif Before Addressing Reporters in Vienna, July 14, 2015. (State Department photo)
Secretary Kerry Speaks With Hossein Fereydoun and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif Before Addressing Reporters in Vienna, July 14, 2015. (State Department photo)

Blocking the second path to a nuclear weapon (and there are only two) through a drastic reduction in the capability to enrich uranium — removing any capability to reach military grade enrichment levels (93 percent). This is accomplished by a dramatic decrease in the number of centrifuges that will be permitted under constant, 24/7 supervision, in only one site, in Natanz: a reduction to 5,000 from the 19,000 Iran has today. Anybody remember the Supreme Leader’s “red lines” on 190,000 centrifuges? But wait, there’s more. Iran will only operate dated, first-generation centrifuges that tend to break down. Serious restrictions will be placed on research and development of new types for at least 10 years.

The necessary step for preventing a breakout to higher enrichment levels is reducing stockpiles of existing enriched uranium and removing it from Iranian territory. This is also a dramatic and positive step: existing stockpiles of roughly 10 tons (which theoretically, is enough for manufacturing eight bombs) will be brought down to 300 kilograms for 15 years. With facts and figures like those, it is hard to see how there could be a covert breakout towards a nuclear weapon.

I’ll get to the invasive inspection regime later.

It’s not just the heavy water reactors in Arak that are being shut down. Also, the fortified enrichment facility in Fordo (the second target of the military option) — where until 2013 uranium was being enriched to 20 percent levels, which would have been the fastest way to a bomb — will be completely taken out of service. The Fordo facility will be converted to an international research site under IAEA supervision, where uranium will not be allowed in the 1,000 research centrifuges that are to remain.

Iran committed and declared — to the United States for the first time — that it will not develop nuclear weapons under any circumstances. The declaratory doctrine is greatly important in the nuclear field. But in order remove any semblance of doubt for those who oppose the deal, the agreement includes a catalog of forbidden acts of research and development that could have military applications. Removing any vagueness in this area is the result of lessons learned from the “Possible Military Dimension” affair of the past and prior to 2003. It’s important to emphasize that the agreement does not give Iran any acquittal or waiver regarding suspected past “military dimension” actions — which will be resolved by the professional echelons of the IAEA. Parallel to the Vienna agreement, Iran and the IAEA also signed a “road map” for addressing suspected “military dimensions” up until December 2015.

The IAEA’s unprecedented intrusive inspection regime is the most impressive part of the agreement and forms the foundation for its preservation. Just like the Cold War inspection and non-proliferation agreements between the United States and the USSR — this is not about trust and goodwill between the sides — it is the strict inspection and verification regimes that will ensure the success of the agreement. In addition to the supervision of uranium enrichment in Natanz, constant supervision via inspectors visits and remote video monitoring will be implemented on the entire nuclear fuel supply chain in Iran — from the uranium mines to the conversion facilities, to the manufacturing and storing of the centrifuges. And, of course, the centrifuges in Natanz. To those who will claim that “Iran is used to deceiving” — remember that Iran actually got very good grades in IAEA reports in the last two years and has strictly adhering to the interim agreement of Nov. 2013.

In order to prevent covert violations of the agreement at undeclared suspect sites, Iran will sign the IAEA Additional Protocol. The Additional Protocol is a result of lessons from Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program in Iraq and is meant to block a covert path to the bomb. The Additional Protocol authorizes inspectors to enter any suspect facility, including military bases. In that framework, inspection will be carried out at the Parchin base. Does anyone remember the Supreme Leader’s “red lines” about not letting IAEA inspectors into military bases? The only possible limitation under the agreement — in certain cases, IAEA inspectors may enter suspect military bases after 24 days as part of the managed access mechanism. But Iran cannot stop inspections on the 24th day. The delay is meaningless for the IAEA and the accompanying American intelligence efforts. Just like the forensic investigations we are familiar with from television police shows, it is impossible to destroy evidence of suspect nuclear activity. And to remove any remaining doubts, the intrusive inspections in the framework of the NPT Additional Protocol carry no time limit. Just like James Bond’s diamonds — they are forever.

Before getting to the positive contributions to Israel’s security , one should note that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s assertion that “a better deal was possible” was baseless. Let’s set aside the prime minister’s mantras and spin. From the very beginning Netanyahu was aiming for a “good deal” with “zero centrifuges” that would completely destroy Iran’s capability to enrich uranium at any level, including for civilian purposes. The neo-conservative Bush Administration (led by Dick Cheney and John Bolton) also thought in terms of “zero centrifuges” and torpedoed the European Union efforts led by Javier Solana. But the Obama Administration went back to the provision 4 of the NPT and the interpretations of the American representatives who formulated the treaty in 1968 which says that: a non-nuclear member state may enrich uranium at low civilian levels on the condition that it opens itself up to intrusive IAEA inspections in order to prevent the development of military applications. Obama did not “appease or surrender” — he simply reverted to the rules of international relations. Obama promised and he delivered an agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Netanyahu wanted to entirely prevent enrichment capabilities — including civilian uses permitted under the NPT.

The positive consequences for Israel’s security are both many and important. First and foremost, the agreement precludes the introduction of a new nuclear-weapon state in the Middle East. Nuclear weapons are league of its own and the only class that constitutes an “existential threat.” That has now been prevented. The agreement strengthens the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Israel is not a signatory but one of its beneficiaries.

The agreement removes fears of nuclear arms race in the Middle East, primarily by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. A feared domino effect was stopped in its tracks. Indeed, Egypt and Saudi Arabia were among the first to welcome the new agreement with Iran. Along those lines, the theories we heard of new regional alliances between Israel and “disappointed” moderate Arab states in opposition to Iran’s nuclear program — appear to have been nothing more than public relations tactics by both sides. Likewise, the spin about Saudi Arabia buying an “off-the-shelf” nuclear bomb from Pakistan can be put back on the shelf.

Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei. (CC BY AslanMedia)
Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei. (CC BY AslanMedia)

The deal saved Israel the immediate need to deal with nearly un-solved dilemmas. Can it continue with the Begin doctrine of using military action to prevent suspected new nuclear-armed countries in the region? The Iranian deal achieved the same goal through diplomacy. A preemptive strive on Iran is in no way similar to an aerial commando strike, such as the one on Iraq’s Osirak reactor in June 1981. Beyond operative aspects (waves of repeated aerial attacks over a long period of time at a distance of over 1,000 kilometers from the border), there is one impenetrable, strategic barrier: the U.S. will not allow a non-signatory to the NPT (Israel) to attack a signatory (Iran), especially when, according to the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, Iran ceased suspicious activities vis-a-vis a nuclear weapon in 2003 and has not resumed them since. This is especially true in light of an international agreement that enshrines Iran’s status as a country without a nuclear weapon. An additional dilemma that Israel no longer needs to deal with: there is no need to get into a discussion over “replacing the disc” and ditching the ambiguity and moving toward an overt deterrence.

Our analysis, as opposed to that of the prime minister, leads to the conclusion that from a strategic perspective, Israel should hope that the deal will be durable and sustainable vis-a-vis the aforementioned nuclear parameters. The Vienna deal has a good chance of doing so, since it is a win-win in which both Iran and the guardians of non-proliferation stand to gain. Iran “signed” to the U.S. that it is not seeking to develop nuclear weapons, and in exchange for the intrusive measures of transparency and oversight it asked for its civilian nuclear plan to be recognized. This was not obvious to all before the deal. The second Iranian demand was also met: rescinding all UN Security Council resolutions (even if the sanctions themselves will be removed gradually over a period of months and years) and replacing them with a new Security Council resolution that adopts the agreement. The resolutions on the sanctions are part of Chapter 7 of United Nations Charter that allows in some cases (but not in this case) to use military force. One of the aims of the new Security Council resolution is to remove the file of Iran’s previous violations from the UN table, and to revoke a legal basis for military action against Iran. For the Iranian leadership, this is most crucial point.

An important question to end with: What does Iran want? Israel’s spokespeople and analysts (apart from the military echelon, whose voice is not heard, but does not seem to be partner to the alarmism) is almost axiomatic: “Of course Iran secretly seeks nuclear weapons.” The facts, as well as the aforementioned analysis, say something else. And if Iran strays from the path to civilian nuclear power, it will quickly be detected by the intrusive oversight mechanisms. Paradoxically for some Israelis, in Iran’s eyes strict adherence to the NPT as a NNWS is an insurance certificate. This will allow the Islamic Republic to preserve its rule vis-a-vis the “regime changing” doctrine of America’s neocons. A rational Iranian approach of matching the means to the ends is of utmost importance for the survival of the regime. The Supreme Leader did not halt the country’s suspicious nuclear activity after the U.S. invaded Iraq and brought down Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 for nothing. American deterrence works — and it will always form another layer to preserve the agreement. The task force of U.S.’s Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf and the Tomahawk missiles of the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean send a message of deterrence on a daily basis. Whoever believes the U.S. is ditching the Middle East is wrong. The Iranian nuclear deal only strengthens and entrenches America’s role in the region.

Shemuel Meir is a former IDF analyst and associate researcher at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. Today he is an independent researcher on nuclear and strategic issues and author of the “Strategic Discourse” blog, which appears in Haaretz. Read this post in Hebrew here.

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